Perhaps you, like me, have read accusations levelled at The Empire* of a focus on knowledge and drill being solely designed to ensure children pass exams, and thus promoting and pushing a reductive agenda which fails to take into account, let alone develop, the whole child©. Barry Smith, at the launch of a certain school’s book, was jumped upon for saying that said school would be an ‘exam-factory’, which apparently proved the fear-mongers’ fears of a Tekken future correct. This, of course, is bullshit, because any school in which children are taught well will likely have excellent exam results. And in any case, which teacher doesn’t wish their pupils to achieve the best exam results they can? There may be all sorts of problems with examinations, but to accuse teachers of – Shock! Horror! – helping pupils pass exams is absurd. Imagine criticising a hospital for being a ‘health-factory’: ‘All those robots want to do is fix people’s broken-bits, but what about mindfulness and nuclear war, eh? When will doctors talk about nuclear war?’
The answer, if I ever get chance to refute such nonsense claims, is that ‘I didn’t mean that, and you know it.’ Well, then what do you mean? That school should be something more than preparing for exams? That children should be afforded the chance to develop their cultural capital through trips to places they might otherwise never visit?; to learn instruments other than girl-band?; to recognise that dance is an art-form, not star-jumping around the gym to an Ed Sheeran remix? Absolutely. Totally with you, just not sure why you didn’t say that in the first place.
Schools can’t teach everything, of course. There’s only so much time, teachers and money, as Mark Lehain argued here. So how much is ‘enough’? At what point do we say, ‘Our pupils now know enough?’ Do we say this? And enough for what? Enough to pass the exam, or enough to face the grizzly world?
This typically excellent tweet from James Theobald reminded me of a passage from a typically excellent Michael Fordham blog:
On the one hand, we know we need to make decisions about what to teach, and yet, on the other, there is not much rational basis on which to say ‘x is more important to teach than y’.
Part of the answer to this must be that we, as curriculum designers, accept arbitrariness as a fundamental feature of curriculum design. On some level, in some way, what we choose to teach in the arts and humanities is always going to be open to the accusation of arbitrariness. I do not think we can ultimately escape this critique, and our response to it should most probably be a challenge to our critics to outline a curriculum theory where specified content is not on some level arbitrary.
In exposing pupils to as much history, English literature or
colouring-in geography as possible we’re obviously betting on this helping them pass their exams well, but we’re also doing so because we believe these subjects and topics to be interesting in and of themselves. We should try to aim, I think, for some kind of narrative across a year, or key stage, but not solely in preparation for KS4, even though this narrative might do exactly that. When I learned to recite every English monarch in order, I did so because I believed this might make me a more interesting and impressive person, at least to the sort of people who find the recitation of English monarchs either interesting, impressive, or a combination of both. Furthermore, I suppose I also realised that should Lord Krang of the Zvartox System threaten Earthly vaporisation unless one person could quickly recite all English monarchs in chronological order then I’d be able to step up and save humanity. ‘Oh, how reductive!’, they cry. ‘That isn’t why I did it!’, I reply, ‘but your ability to moan about it is, I suppose, down to my acumen, so you can thank me by buggering off.’
The point is there is never enough. I, like you (not you, though), always want to know more. And the more I know the more confident I am in expressing the stretch of history, in my case, to my pupils. Knowledge is sticky. There are probably better, or worse, starting points, and for this we need to consider that issue of arbitrariness, but let’s neither assume there’s an end-amount of useful knowledge, nor that information is only oil to an examination conveyer belt.